Concert Notes

Brahms’ “Rinaldo”

Notes by TŌN horn player Ziming Zhu

During his lifetime, Johannes Brahms never composed any operatic works. He is regarded as one of the most important Austro-German composers of the Romantic period, leaving us to wonder what an opera written by him would sound like. However, his lesser-known cantata Rinaldo might give us the closest idea.

The success of Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) in 1868 bolstered the confidence of the self-critical composer and led him to complete some previously initiated works that had remained unfinished. Among them were the famous First Symphony and Rinaldo. Regarded by Brahms as a “problem child”, Rinaldo was conceived in 1863 as a work for a choral competition in Aachen. Evidence in the draft shows that the composer had a hard time completing the piece, especially in the closing chorus.

Rinaldo is based on Goethe’s dramatic poem of the same name, which presents an episode of Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata. In the story, the crusader knight Rinaldo is seduced by the sorceress Armida, who was sent to sabotage Rinaldo on his mission. With his comrades’ help, Rinaldo is able to break free from Armida’s spell and continue his journey.

The same story appears in other classical music settings. Prior to Brahms, composers like Lully, Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck, and Rossini had written operas based on it. However, Brahms decided to choose the form of the cantata. His decision was heavily influenced by his mentor, Robert Schumann. Schumann’s approach to dramatic works such as Goethe’s Faust and Byron’s Manfred emphasizes the original literary text, and how the music reflects on it rather than the theatrical effect, an idea which makes the cantata a better-suited form for the composition. In Brahms’ work, Armida has neither has a singing role nor an active part, which is similar to Goethe’s original text. Considering that most of the work was written before the German Requiem, it is not surprising that Rinaldo shares the same gorgeous orchestration. It was scored for the classical-sized orchestra, a four-part male chorus (three hundred singers performed in the premiere), and a tenor solo.